It’s 2021, and for the first time a TV sitcom involves the Native American perspective and what it’s like living in a white, colonized world, Rutherford Falls actress and writer Jana Schmieding tells Eugene Weekly.
“It’s a huge honor for me,” she adds. “I feel really honored to have my face and my jokes entering the homes of Native people and making Native people laugh. It’s something we really need as a community.”
A Lakota Sioux Native, Schmieding was born in Eugene, raised in Canby and graduated from the University of Oregon in 2005. She’s the co-star and one of five Indigenous writers on Rutherford Falls, which is available on NBC’s streaming service Peacock. The TV show is more than an opportunity for Schmieding, though. It’s a chance to be a part of something that accurately reflects the Native American desire for visibility, she says.
Schmieding plays Reagan Wells, a member of the fictional Minashonka tribe. Wells’ dream is to have a museum that portrays the history of her tribe. She’s also best friends with Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), a well-meaning descendant of the town’s white settler after whom the town is named.
But how realistic is the idea of a Native woman being friends with someone like Nathan?
“I have many Nathans in my life,” Schmieding says. “As a Native person who grew up in Oregon, there are a lot of well-meaning people who have just either never been challenged or their history has been challenged, and they just dig their heels in.”
Though the show is based in a fictional community on the East Coast, the tensions between settler history and the Indigenous history isn’t new for Schmieding. Growing up in Canby, which was named after a notorious Indian killer — former Civil War general Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, who was killed by a Modoc assassin, she says — Schmieding grew up knowing the history of the town better than her white peers. And while at the UO, she adds, she was an organizer for the campus Native American Student Union.
“A lot of the things that Native people have been fighting for, for generations, is just visibility,” she says. “Visibility in education and politics, as well as media.”
The series covers a topic that is now familiar for many — whether statues of settlers ought to stand. In 2020, protesters toppled statues, such as dozens of Christopher Columbus statues throughout the U.S. and The Pioneer and The Pioneer Mother statues on the UO campus. That’s a desire that has long been held by the Native community, she says.
What stands out on the show is that portrayals of Native Americans aren’t one-sided Hollywood tropes. Terry Thomas (played by Michael Greyeyes) is the CEO of the casino in the town, but his character embraces capitalism, saying in one episode that it’s ethical because the community receives shares of the profit, and is pushing his adolescent daughter to sell her beadwork at high prices.
“On TV it’s not a common character,” Schmeiding says, “but it is in our real lives.”
Rutherford Falls has these nuanced characters, Schmeiding says, because the show has five Native writers, including the showrunner (a title for someone who has the creative authority on a show). And within those writers’ backgrounds is more diversity, she adds. One person grew up on a reservation, some in the city and in the suburbs. And they’re all from different tribal nations.
“The nuance in the characters on the show, it comes from the nuance in the room,” she adds. “The reason it’s new to audiences is because Hollywood has never focused on hiring Native writers to tell Native stories. We have a lot of stories in Hollywood about Native people but oftentimes they’re in support of the white characters on the show.”
So it’s the first time that Native characters are portrayed as real people, she adds, as whole characters, instead of “just props for a white narrative.”
With Native writers and cast, Rutherford Falls is leading to more visibility in media. There are TV shows underway (such as FX’s Reservation Dogs by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi). And showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas is helping the other Native writers work toward writer’s room leadership roles, Schmeiding says.
“The more Native people who are not only getting the experience in the room but joining the WGA [Writer’s Guild of America] and are unionized writers, then I think what you’ll see is an explosion of Native writers who go on to develop their own work,” she says.
At the UO she studied theater arts, but if a TV show like Rutherford Falls had been around that had Native writers and even makeup designers, she says her career trajectory would have been more clear.
“I didn’t think until I got hired at this job as a staff writer that Native content was something Hollywood was interested in,” she says. “This has been a huge moment for me as a comedian, writer and performer.”